Indrek Kiisler: Estonia needs a more realistic view of the Nordics

Indrek Kiisler.
Indrek Kiisler. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Estonia has no special relationship with Finland or Sweden, Indrek Kiisler says in Vikerraadio's daily comment and recommends replacing corresponding delusions with attention paid to Latvia and Lithuania whom he regards Estonia's only steadfast partners.

Finland's decision to drag out restoring labor migration with Estonia as long as possible this spring-summer was like a cold shower for Estonians. The next step was taken by Sweden when it opened its borders fully only to Nordic citizens. Other travelers from the European Union who do not have an immunization passport must get tested before they can enter Sweden. That includes Estonians. The Estonian foreign ministry could only shrug. Deputy Secretary General Märt Volmer admitted that we have overestimated Estonia's significance in the Swedish worldview. A rare admission from a high-ranking diplomat.

A heightened self-image is one of only a few things Estonians cannot claim to lack. What is more, we are probably lulled by near constant talk of Estonia becoming one of the Nordics any day now. And that our northern neighbors are just as interested in having us as we are in joining.

In truth, neither Finland nor Sweden consider Estonia worthy of a special relationship. A very good neighbor, surely, but not one in whose name even the slightest or risks should be taken. We are a necessary security buffer between Russia and the Nordics, while we are too small, too poor and come from a different historical background. Estonia is one of many Central and Eastern European countries. The Estonian government is about to write a mutual cooperation report with Finland and for the first time also Sweden. Hopefully, the report will adopt a realistic view instead of merely listing success stories.

On Sweden first

The controversial history of mutual relations goes back to the dawn of the Republic of Estonia. The first crack in relations appeared after events in Izborsk in 1919 where several Estonian union leaders and members of the social democratic movement were killed without a trial of any kind. A total of 25 people. These murders took place at a time when the social democrats and unions were a natural part of Swedish democracy. The massacre left the Swedes suspicious of their new overseas neighbors. Estonians didn't seem quite European.

The Soviet occupation in Estonia put light years between the two countries. While Estonians were a noticeable social group in Swedish society after the escape of 1944, Sweden, also known as the immigrant paradise, has long since become a multinational country where Estonians aren't even among the 25 biggest minorities. Estonia's Coastal Swedes are down to a handful of diehard activists.

Next came the MS Estonia disaster in 1994 that drove home the painful realization that Estonia would have utterly failed without help. The country was short on absolutely everything, from response capacity to rescue and investigation equipment. The Swedish government's self-assertive behavior in looking to cover up the ferry's hull and muddy the water regarding arms shipments only reflected Estonia not being considered an equal partner.

Today, we are together in the European Union. We have several functional cooperation formats. For example, Nordic and Baltic prime ministers always meet before the EU Council. We have close economic, cultural, scientific and social ties. However, the Swedes' position that the eastern shore of the Baltic is inhabited by not quite "peers" persists. A good example of this is Scandinavian banks' colossal money laundering using their Baltic branches. Estonian authorities and local bank executives were saddled with all of the responsibility without so much as a second thought, with the Russian mob, dirty money and Baltic countries lumped in together. White-collar Scandinavians cannot possibly be involved in something like that! This worldview is kept alive by daily news of crimes committed by Baltic residents that range from drunk driving to prostitution and drug peddling.

Briefly on Finland

Siim Kallas told ERR in an interview that there is a paradox in Finnish-Estonian relations. Even though the Finns have helped us a great deal as a people, their governments have never been willing to take risks for Estonia. He listed a few gripes from history: Finland was never officially a proponent of Estonia regaining its independence, the country was opposed to our currency reform and dragged out visa freedom for as long as possible. We can now add to this list Finland keeping its borders closed to labor commuters from Estonia this spring. The decision to freeze labor migration and introduce much tougher entry criteria was not made to persecute Estonia. We simply do not matter enough to the Finnish government to merit special consideration. Creating and advertising a special relationship with Estonia on the official level is simply unnecessary. The backdrop of all this includes Estonia's NATO membership and endless bickering with Russia.

Additionally, the coronavirus crisis has boosted countries' independent decision-making capacity as the EU has failed to keep up in its crisis reactions. The setback this has delivered to the reputation of the union cannot be mitigated by the Commission's rampant borrowing, with a part of decisions that were until recently common or at least followed discussion now made in member state capitals, which practice looks like it's here to stay at least until the end of the coronavirus crisis.

Should we be sad that we are not considered worthy of the Nordic club? I believe that the truth is always better than self-deception. The coronavirus crisis has dragged into the light facts it pays to recognize from time to time. Allow me to reiterate that there is not a hint of hostility in relations and we are simply closely associated neighboring countries that cooperate in uncounted areas. Hopefully more with every passing year.

We can also hope that as our prosperity grows and we gradually leave behind Eastern European mentality, we will slowly become more accepted. Estonians are about as prosperous today as the Finns were in 2010, while the accumulation of wealth does nothing to hide the fact that our society often still exhibits the same ideas and behavioral patterns that were around when the sailing regatta of the 1980 Moscow Olympics was held in Estonia.

Historian and former PM Mart Laar came out and said that the coronavirus crisis showed that we cannot rely on Finland. And that despite at times bumpy cooperation, Latvia and Lithuania remain our only steadfast partners. We need one another existentially.

The first real crisis task of three-way Baltic cooperation is already being solved. Containing the flood of refugees from Belarus. Should their numbers in Lithuania grow into the tens of thousands, we will have no choice but to bring some of them here. Whereas there will be no time for cracking wise and suggesting refugees should go back to where they came from. Abandoning Lithuania would not just be a cold shower like the one we got from Finland and Sweden, it would constitute putting an iceberg in the middle of the Baltics. And we need that like we need a hole in the head.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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